Tips for reading difficult texts

Elizabeth St. Pierre’s (2011) chapter on post qualitative research talks about reading difficult texts. St. Pierre points out that “we hesitate to read outside our comfort areas and too casually reject texts that seem too hard to read” (p. 614). St. Pierre’s advice to her student is to:

take seriously Lacan’s (as cited in Ulmer, 1985) advice, “to read does not obligate one to understand. First it is necessary to read…avoid understanding too quickly” (p. 196). I have little sympathy with excuses not to read difficult texts, and I advise students to read harder when the text seems too hard to read, to just keep reading, letting the new language wash over them until it becomes familiar (p. 614).

Throughout our reading of others’ texts, sometimes we fail to apprehend what the author is communicating. When we are learning about a new topic, these challenges to understanding occur because we as readers have insufficient knowledge to understand what the author is trying to communicate. Further, sometimes authors write in ways that are difficult to understand.

I’ve typically found that I’ve been able to better understand what authors are communicating through deliberate reading on a new topic. Here are some tips to try when faced with reading a difficult text:

  • Simply not reading is not going to help. Start reading.
  • Keep reading
  • Re-read
  • Take notes as you read. You could open a word file and take notes; write in the margin of a book;  underline or highlight passages that stand out as you read; add sticky notes to sections that you want to come back to. All of these tactics can be completed using e-readers. The key here is to have some strategies to help you highlight key concepts in the reading.
  • Take a side-track by locating and reading an article cited in the text that you are reading. This sometimes helps to explain a point that the author is making by providing context. By locating references in the bibliography, you can find resources to help me understand the topics an author is discussing. This helps to develop a deeper and broader understanding of a new topic, including debates about ideas presented.
  • Consult a dictionary when you come across new terms.
  • Keep track of definitions of terms used by an author in a glossary. Don’t gloss over new words or terms used by an author: write down the definition used by the author and include the full citation. These glossaries are helpful in future writing about the topic discussed. You can also compare how a particular author defines a term with how it is defined by other scholars.
  • Read secondary texts that explain what primary sources are saying. For example, when I first read Garfinkel (1967) over 20 years ago, I also read Heritage’s book on Garfinkel’s work (1984). Reading these two texts alongside each other helped me make sense of key arguments put forward by Garfinkel. Similarly, whatever text you choose to read, other authors have provided texts that comment on and explain key points.
  • Start a reading group. It is very helpful to talk about the readings with others – so ask some colleagues to join you in reading a new text. Talking about a difficult text will help you understand it.

These are my tips, but there are lots of strategies out there that might help teachers as they work with students reading difficult texts: See, for example, Chapter 9, Helping students read difficult texts in:

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical  Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. (2nd ed.). Jossey Bass.

Kathy Roulston


Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Heritage, J. (1984). Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

St. Pierre, E. (2011). Post qualitative research: The critique and the coming after. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (4th ed., pp. 611-625). Los Angeles: Sage.

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